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On pro golf, Lafite and “positive contagion” on wine

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If I gave you a putter that I said had been owned by Luke Donald, who is currently ranked the #1 golfer in the world–and if, moreover, I told you he had used it in his spectacular win earlier this year at the WGC-Accenture Championship–would your own golf performance improve, if you used it?

If the answer is “Yes,” that’s called “positive contagion,” or “the belief of transference of beneficial properties between animate persons/objects to previously neutral objects,” in the words of this study, published online. Even if the golfers in the study did not consciously believe that using Donald’s putter would improve their game, it did: they “had better performance, sinking more putts.” This suggests that “perception can be modulated by positive contagion.” Not only that: “Individuals who believed they were using the professional golfer’s putter perceived the size of the golf hole to be larger than golfers without such a belief.”

An astronishing statement, that! Calls into question the nature of objective reality, doesn’t it? We tend to believe that “reality” is something “out there,” solid, concrete and unalterable, as opposed to the squishy world of dreams and imagination. After all, golf holes don’t get bigger or smaller, like Alice in Wonderland, depending on where we’re coming from. They’re 4.25 inches in diameter, period. So how can our golfer who’s using Luke Donald’s putter perceive the hole to be bigger than it really is?

In the discussion part of the article, the authors wonder “how positive contagion influenced putting performance.” One theory is that “priming,” which is “a mental activation of certain stereotypes,” can have an effect on behavior. For instance, if I tell you that a person is a Harvard professor of physics, you might logically infer that that person would be more knowledgeable and intelligent than most, and you might therefore be more inclined to believe him if he instructs you about quantum theory. Research suggests this is the case: students, told that someone was a “professor,” experienced “enhanc[ed] performance on subsequent knowledge tests” on that topic!

I think we can see this same phenomenon of “positive contagion” in wine. It explains how the anecdotal, upwardly mobile Chinese person finds Lafite to be the greatest wine in the world, simply because it is Lafite. His perception of the wine has been exposed to the contagion of what he knows about it. It’s as if he thinks, on some subconscious level, “The fact that I am able to own, display and drink this Lafite, which centuries of Kings, Popes and millionaires have coveted, means I am a better person than I actually am.” If he were to find fault with the Lafite, he would be in denial of his own goodness.  It’s a sort of halo effect: From Wikipedia: the halo effect is “a cognitive bias whereby the perception of one trait (i.e. a characteristic of a person or object) is influenced by the perception of another trait (or several traits) of that person or object. An example would be judging a good-looking person as more intelligent.” Or an expensive bottle of wine as better than an inexpensive one.

We see this commonly in the wine world. It underlies much of pricing strategy and marketing (as the Bordelais and Screaming Eagle understand quite well). It’s also why blind tasting is the only ruthless and efficient way of doing away with such bias. To revert to the golfing example, if you were to give our hypothetical golfer Luke Donald’s putter, but you did not tell him, our golfers’ game would not be impacted. There is nothing special about Luke Donald’s putter: it does not possess magical qualities that mysteriously flow from it into the mind and body of its user. The trick only works when the golfer knows he’s putting with Luke’s club. With Lafite, the trick works only when the drinker knows it’s Lafite. Otherwise, it’s just another good red wine.

We should always keep this in mind when interpreting the results of expert tastings of wine. Did they know it was Luke Donald’s putter, or didn’t they? If they did, there’s a good chance their experience was the positive contagion effect, which is not to be trusted.

  1. Steve, I mean professor, this all makes sense (Native Americans eating the hearts of bears for instance), but what are the draw backs to blind tasting? Could it be that a wine from earlier halcyon days blind tasted, but subconsciously signaling those old memory synapses garner a better score? Or what of thirty wines an hour dulling or confusing even the best EXPERT? Is it possible that a heavy docket of rich cabernets could be offset with a single, say pristine, but rather boring cabernet separating itself from the “bunch”? I guess the professor’s lot in life is questions, but the thoughtful essay is and should “ferment” lots of thoughts, opinions, and yes, ???s.
    Thanks,
    Dennis

  2. It could be that “positive contagion” is what we used to call the power of positive thinking. The golfer hits his stroke with more confidence, holes more putts. the student approaches learning with more confidence, doesn’t second guess. But that is about performance and that might be in the higher thinking areas of the brain.

    I’m not sure this is the same thing that makes Lafite taste better than it should. Wine appreciation is about pleasure and pleasure lies in the release of dopamine, like with food, sex and drugs. This is low level stuff that guides us by instinct. What’s interesting is that ideas can create physical pleasure too. Like the idea you are drinking a thousand dollar bottle of wine. This could create extra dopamine and extra pleasure beyond what good wine would normally bring, making it actually taste better.

    This is why wine appreciation is all about the “story.” Without the story, it just doesn’t taste as good.

  3. “With Lafite, the trick works only when the drinker knows it’s Lafite. Otherwise, it’s just another good red wine”.
    Steve, I’d guess you’ve been either immersed in the Copenhagen interpretation (Niels Bohr) of quantum mechanics, or “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, by Thomas Kuhn. Now, based on the statement above, you can consider yourself a full-fledged solipsist and relativist.

  4. Peter, I am a relativist–if by that you mean that there are no absolute values, only consensus. By the way, it is logically incoherent to extrapolate solipsism from relativism.

  5. “It is often asserted that relativism about truth must be applied to itself. The cruder form of the argument concludes that since the relativist is asserting relativism as an absolute truth, it leads to a contradiction”. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    Steve, solipsism is implicit in the Copenhagen interpretation and relativism is a major part of Kuhn’s book.
    But to affirm that there is no intrinsic/objective quality in a bottle of Château Lafite (i.e., the “reality” of Lafite’s quality only exists in the taster’s mind), seems like a typical case of both, solipsism and relativism, to me.

  6. Steve
    Just when I tought you were a marketing hack with a jaded, leathered palate, you amaze me with some freaky original thinking. I couldn’t give a flying **** about golf, except it keeps a lot of a**holes off my favorite trout stream, and we all know people are label-conscious, but you are striking deeper. I’ll tell you my one valid, relevant experience. Somehow I weaseled myself into a tasting where they were pouring an early 80′s Mouton. I was waiting in line for my lousy one ounce pour, and I could smell that shit ten feet away. And it was a sublime smell. Say what you will, some of the famous wines ARE great. Sorry you slipped off the top ten. It’s like my ex-wife got laid off. Mark

  7. Steve, you made my dream come true…a post about wine and golf! Plus, it was an interesting concept you relayed. Luke Donald has a wine label too so that gives it an extra tie in. If you happen to have his putter lying around, pass it over, my putting stroke was lost somewhere recently! =)
    Thanks!

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